Few things are sadder to witness than people who once professed faith leaving it all behind. This is especially true when those people were raised in Christian homes by God-fearing parents. These children were given every opportunity to put their faith in Jesus but determined instead to turn their backs on him. Why would they make such a tragic choice?
Several years ago Tom Bisset carried out a study of people who had left the faith. Wanting this to be more than a statistical analysis, he actually sat down with people to interview them and ask for detailed information on when, why, and how they abandoned their faith. As he compiled his research he arrived at the four most prominent reasons that people raised in Christian homes eventually leave Christianity behind.
They leave because they have troubling, unanswered questions about the faith. Essentially, they come to doubt that Christianity offers compelling answers to the tough questions—questions related to science, suffering, sexuality, and a host of other crucial subjects. Their doubts may be intellectual or academic, theological or practical. Whatever the case, they became convinced that Christianity does not actually offer truth to those who seek it, that its answers are unreasonable, unrealistic, or just plain wrong. No longer satisfied with the answers and claims of Christianity, they opt for “intellectual honesty” and look elsewhere.
(A solution to this problem is to engage the difficult questions with our children and to show that Christianity offers a cohesive and compelling worldview that accounts for science, suffering, sexuality, and whatever else we find pressing or perplexing. We have nothing to fear from even our children’s most difficult questions.)
They leave because their faith is not working for them. Though they tried and perhaps even tried honestly and sincerely, they were not able to find the peace, joy, or meaning the Christian faith claims to offer them. Their personal experience of Christianity was never able to match what they had been taught to believe about it. Their experience was never able to match what they saw modeled by friends, pastors, or parents—people who expressed the joy and fulfillment that was theirs through a relationship with Christ Jesus. Out of discouragement they abandoned Christianity, sure its claims were exaggerated or just plain false.
(A solution here is to be vulnerable with our children, and to express that we, too, experience moments of doubt and disbelief, and that we are sometimes left wishing for answers God has not provided. We need to be careful not to oversell our faith, not to describe the Christian life as free from all difficulty. After all, the Bible emphasizes both the joys and the suffering that come to those who believe.)
They leave because they have allowed other things to take priority. For some people Christianity is outright rejected and replaced by an alternate system of beliefs. For others, though, Christianity is merely displaced by competing passions, concerns, or emphases. They may commit themselves to success in business and allow religion to take a back seat, or they may passionately pursue sports and find it more exciting and fulfilling than their faith. Some endure times of trial or torment and in the midst of those troubles find their faith has fallen by the wayside. In either case, faith, once an important part of their life, falls in significance until it fades far into the background. It’s less that these people reject their faith and more that they lose interest in it or even forget about it.
(Perhaps the solution here is for parents to emphasize the centrality of the local church to the Christian life, yet without allowing it to tip over into legalism. This community of Christians can offer children friends and mentors—even, or especially, older ones—who can supplement, complement, or even correct parental training. Children can learn that they, like their parents, need a place to belong, a place where they can both serve and be served.)
They leave because they never personally owned their faith. Sure, these people grew up going to church and they went through all the motions of personal commitments and youth groups and personal devotions. They did it all. They played the part. They convinced others and perhaps even convinced themselves. But all the while, whether they knew it or not, they were merely conforming to the desires or expectations of other people, of parents, peers, or pastors. They had never personally put their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. When they grew sufficiently independent to make their own way in life, they gladly—or perhaps reluctantly—left Christianity behind. They left it behind because they had never personally owned it to begin with.
(A solution here is to continually preach the gospel to our children and never to assume they are saved simply because they are in a Christian home. As parents we need to regularly ask our children if they believe, to express joy when we see evidences of God’s saving grace, and to express concern when we see disobedience that may contradict their profession.)
God tells us there will always be wheat and tares. Even among children born to believing parents there will be some who reject all their parents have taught. Some of these will rebel for a while and return. Some will not. As parents we are to commit ourselves to the task of raising our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, to teach them the facts of the faith, to show how it answers our questions and meets our needs, to insist that the good news of the gospel must be personally apprehended. We do what God calls us to do, we do it to the best of our abilities, and we entrust the results—and our children—to God’s good providence.
Obviously Bisset’s study is not exhaustive and there are many books and studies that would offer different perspectives. Yet highlights rings true in my experience. I have seen many—too many—in each category. How about you? What do you consider the most prominent factors to explain why people abandon their childhood faith?